GRE Reading Comprehension Passage Patterns

Do you really understand the passage?

Many GRE students often find themselves at sea on the Reading Comp passage. It is not that they do not practice, but they always feel they are floundering about the passage, trying to get to the questions. Once they get to the questions, things tend to get worse. At times, students feel that they are choosing at random, because all answers work. Other times, two answers seem equally valid.

The truth is GRE RC is very difficult. And it does take practice. However, it takes the right kind of practice. Unless you are doing the following, you are not optimizing your approach to RC, and in all likelihood you are floundering about both the passage and the questions.

Below is an exercise that will help you become very skilled at the Reading Comprehension section.


Fleshing out the skeleton

The good news about the GRE is many passages tend to have a similar structure. A theory is introduced, a phenomenon is explained, a theory is questioned, and a new theory is introduced.

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Think of this structure as the skeleton. As you read, you are fleshing out, so to speak, the different parts of the skeleton. Specifically, you want to pay attention to the following:

Main idea

Every passage is trying to make a point. What is that point, that idea that holds the entire passage together? That’s the main idea.

Function of each paragraph

Understanding what the point of each paragraph is will help you better understand the passage.

Supporting Details

Big ideas have supporting details. So if the author makes a claim, he or she is likely to provide details to back up that claim.

Competing Theories

Many passages have more than one theory. Know which theory the author agrees with and which one he doesn’t agree with. Understanding the supporting details will also be helpful here.


Putting Method into Practice

A great exercise is to spend about 3 to 4 minutes reading the passage (time yourself!). As soon as you are done force yourself, on paper, to come up with an outline of the passage, mentioning the main ideas, supporting details, etc.

Whatever you do, do not refer to the passage. Your outline must be based on the info. in your head. Again, this is an exercise—it is to help you process the passage at a deeper level. This not a strategy you should employ test day.

Below I have included a link to a real LSAT test. Head to section 4 and try out the following technique on the first passage (the one on Rita Dove). The reason I have chosen an LSAT, which Reading Comp.-wise is very similar to the GRE, is because this material will be completely fresh.

Also, in a follow-up blog post, I will include another passage outline, in addition to the Rita Dove passage. You can compare your outlines. If you notice that you are coming up with very little, then it is clear that you are not processing much of what you read. Indeed, that is expected. This is a skill that takes lots of practice. But don’t worry—you can put it to use on anything from an LSAT/GRE passage to a difficult article in The Atlantic Monthly.

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16 Responses to GRE Reading Comprehension Passage Patterns

  1. Dhannya October 8, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

    Hi Chris ,

    Where are the answers to the Rita Dove passage?

  2. Amit September 29, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Hey Chris,

    I did the Rita Dove passage, got 7 out of 8 correctly and i took approx. 13 minutes to finish it. But i did not feel the passage was as difficult as other passages on Magoosh or GRE test. I mean the answers were not so confusing and one could easily distinguish a wrong one from a right. I think the passages on Magoosh are more like the real test passages with robust vocabulary and ambivalent answer choices. Would appreciate if you could suggest and put some tougher passages for practice.


  3. kikis July 24, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the link. I practised the Rita Dove passage. Got 2 questions wrong out of 8. Request you to do a video explanation of the answers and approximately how much time do you think we should take for this passage with questions.

    Thanks in advance !!!

  4. spandana August 18, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    thank you so much… helped me a lot….

  5. jay June 2, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    hey chris

    Thanks for the tips. They were really helpful. Would you suggest doing the other passages in section 4 or other sections for gre preparation?

    • jay June 2, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      Also, i was not able to find the link of the follow up blog post in which you make an outline. Could you please post the link. Thanks

      • Chris Lele
        Chris June 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

        Sure, I will post that soon!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris June 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

      Sure, but remember these passages tend to be as tough as the difficult ones on the GRE. So make sure you practice with some easier questions as well.

      Good luck!

  6. Prem April 28, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    Hi chris,

    I came across the below site with some test questions.

    could you please give me a your feedback on their difficulty compared to actual GRE questions i would encounter.

    regards Prem

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

      In general these questions are okay. I would definitely say the questions are much more difficult on the actual exam.

      Hope that helps!

  7. adeel April 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Thanks a lot Chris. Also i was thinking the same strategy of writing about the RC passage on the paper. I believe it’s a great thing. Besides this, we should do the same thing with newspaper’s articles & columns.

    But what should we do if we encounter complex or difficult vocabulary in the test?


    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm #


      As much as is possible, use the context in which you see a difficult word to understand that word (or at least make an educated guess). But, while you are reading the passage, thinking that your chances of understanding the passage are low because you don’t understand a word or two, can hurt you. Try on the other hand to get the main point will help you on the questions.

      Of course continuing to read challenging articles, filled with tough vocab, not only exposes you to words, but helps you to work around words you don’t understand.

      Good luck, and keep up the reading :).

  8. aadya April 26, 2012 at 11:14 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the tips on approaching the RC section. As suggested I did attempt the LSAT section. Most of it was fine, but the last passage really confused me. Though simple to understand I got most of the answers wrong. Could you please do a video tutorial on how to approach a passage which needs lot of information from RC passage OR could you explain the answer selection on this passage?


    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Sure, I can do a video explanation of the last passage, using the format presented above :). I’ll have that out soon.

      • aadya April 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

        Thanks Chris !!

        Its wonderful to have your support 🙂

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